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We Went to War

Bratislava International Film Festival 2012

A documentary that does not so much follow its characters longitudinally through time as much as it straddles time itself. After 40 years, director Michael Grigsby, now with co author Rebekah Tolley, returns to the same three veterans, who 40 years ago were young men made old by war and who now, in their sixties, struggle with feelings of embitterment and resignation. One of them, seen fishing by a river, leaves the strongest impression; apart from modern headgear, he has the look of a character straight out of Ride the High Country. We are on a wide Texas plain, with a freely held camera, lingering long enough to allow the eye to immerse itself into the unchanging nature of a country, its unchangingly conservative inhabitants and an irrevocable hierarchy of values. Indeed, these men are in no hurry (neither inwardly), in their stoic attitude toward the world (nor outwardly), facing the hectic gallop of rip-roaring megalopolis-America. The camera expresses this with long lingering shots of empty roads wending through a changeless Western landscape as if into the unknown.

The film expresses both the flow of time, and of halted time, with the use of occasional split-screen shots. In one scene we see half a frame occupied by a young man behind a steering wheel, in the other half , the same man forty years later. Four decades perfectly compressed into one frame, while beyond both car windows, the same landscape passes by, distinguished only by the separate guises of the same face, from youth to old age. Regarding this compression of time into a single split-screen frame – never have I seen this so strikingly portrayed in a film before. At other times, two shots of the same location seen from a moving car, express stagnation, since in these latter decades neither the image nor the spirit of the town has changed; with locations more reminiscent of a Wild West movie, and exteriors, which in all but a few details, appear little altered. The portraits of the three men, along with the testaments of a wife and daughter, express the filmmakers' respect for their subjects. They also reflect the resignation, frustration and anger of these central protagonists, their feelings of an historical injustice; of the disregard for victims sacrificed to a war which history would judge senseless, but which only the daughter evaluates as a war of aggression. Here, voice is given to a real backwoods America, reluctant to move and hard to move; an America which votes en masse for the Republicans, perhaps in a vain illusion they will less interfere in, and make less attempt to change their old-world view of life.

Last modified June 2013
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